Twenty Moments is an annual feature on the blog where I take you behind some of the photos that helped shape my year.
Yesterday’s post was about one form of loss suffered in the April tornado. Today is another. Twelve year old Diva Rigney lost her horse. The horse’s name was Sally. Diva lived on US Highway 72 in the Coxey community west of Athens. Her horse was pastured near her home. The area was devastated as the tornado swept across Highway 72 and Diva’s horse became one of the casualties. Maybe to me the death of a horse is not such a big deal. After all, two people lost their lives in a trailer park next to Diva’s home. To Diva, the loss was devastating.
This story is one I discovered during a visit to the Coxey Church of Christ. The church suffered heavy damage and one of the members asked me if I had seen the horse’s grave out front. I had not and she began telling me the story. The only problem was she did not know whose horse it had been. The animal was found badly injured in the front of the church so a grave was dug there and the horse was buried. They suggested I try a nearby farm which I did. The owners didn’t know who owned the horse but a lady out there helping knew the trainer who was teaching a little girl to ride. She gave me a phone number and I made a call. A few calls later and I had a meeting lined up with Diva and her mom and dad.
Diva was still learning to ride and she had only ridden Sally one time and the horse threw her that time. Never the less, Diva had a strong affection for her horse. It was the first animal she had owned and she cared for it daily and was getting ready to ride her again. The tornado hit and all that changed. The animal’s back leg was badly injured and the horse was put down. The church kindly agreed to allow the animal to be buried on their property. Diva was mourning.
The meeting I set up was perhaps the worst time of day for a photograph. One o’clock was the best time for the family and I agreed knowing a photo was going to be tough in that harsh sun with not a cloud in the sky. Diva had erected a small cross on the grave and I knew I wanted to get the photo of her with that cross. Whenever you encounter really bad light like this the best option I have discovered is to turn your subject’s back to the sun and use a strobe to fill. Because of the way the grave was laid out, the writing on the cross and the direction of the sun I could only get her partially out of the harsh light. I had Diva sit down beside the cross and turn her body so at least her face was shaded. I then added light to her face using an SB28 fired through a white umbrella at very close range on full power.
No solution is perfect but I didn’t want to mess around too long with Diva at the grave. She was very emotional and I knew the longer we were there the tougher it would be for her. I did the photo and I tried to get a video interview but the wind was so noisy the video was not especially good. It was usable but that is about all. Diva cried and her mom comforted her and I felt like a massive intruder. Later; however, Diva got several offers from people around north Alabama who wanted to give her a horse. I know she was able to accept at least one of the offers so there was at least a silver lining to her story.
Twenty Moments is an annual feature on the blog where I take you behind some of the photos I feel helped shape my year.
I have a confession to make. I love shooting girls sports. I do. And it is because of the pony tails. In fact, I think there should be a pony tail requirement somewhere in the rule book. A flying pony tail is just about the coolest thing in the sporting world! Of course, I have very short hair and that is because I have very little hair but that is a bit beside the point; however, if I had hair I think I would wear it in a pony tail. If my mother is reading this, just forget I said that mom! I just love the way a pony tail flies all over the place and makes even average sports pictures a notch or two cooler.
This photo is yet another from Hartselle High School’s state championship run. Jada Hayes was the starting pitcher for the Hartselle squad and, unlike boys baseball, girls have no inning limits so I think she pitched every game in the tournament. The underhand pitching motion doesn’t stress the arm and shoulder the way the overhand motion does. Jada had a great tournament and, I think, was the MVP. This photo was shot during the late innings of the state championship game with Valley High.
Obviously, this photo is back lit which is the reason it is elevated to a Twenty Moments status. I love pony tails and I love shooting into the sun so this photo is a collision of two of my favorite visual worlds. I was shooting from the third base side photo box, the one I don’t care for much and looking almost directly into the sun. If memory serves, there were several frames that were blown out by getting the sun in the frame.
This photo ran as the lead photo in our sports package for the paper the next morning. I was surprised because I thought of this photo in much the same way I thought of the batter’s shadow; a photo that just made me happy. Plus, they skipped over the wonderful jubilation photo you saw yesterday and ran this one so I guess I was doubly surprised. That reminds me, don’t ever transmit a photo you don’t want to run because Murphy’s law states that every photo editor must, in every circumstance, run the photo the photographer least wants to run. Ok, not really but, it is something like that. Fact is, people don’t see photos the same way. What I may think is obviously the best photo another person might completely overlook because personalities and likes and tastes are all different.
Back light can be tough. Don’t try it in any automatic mode. Your camera will go nuts and give you either a complete silhouette or a complete blowout. Meter what is important and find a balance between the highlights and shadows you can live with. I didn’t want a silhouette so I dialed it in to somewhere near the mid tones and worked with the exposure until I was happy. In fact, some may think differently, but I don’t ever shoot sports on anything but manual. You don’t want your exposures jumping all over the place.
Like the shadow photo, I did not spend a ton of time getting this picture. It is a saw sharpening photo and not what I would call a core moment even though our sports people thought differently. Get this shot but stay tuned in to the game and make sure you are not missing the key play while you are chasing the light.
Twenty Moments is an annual feature on the blog where I take you behind some of the photographs I feel helped shape my year.
For those of you who don’t live in tornado country it may be hard to appreciate how quickly your life can be changed, ruined or ended when a tornado strikes. The storms are furious and fast and the moments of terror you spend in the path of one of these monsters stays with the survivors for the rest of your life. April is a particularly bad month in north Alabama for tornadoes and we had nearly finished the month when an EF3 tornado dropped down over the Tennessee River and entered Limestone County in the southwest corner of the county. The storm stayed on the ground from the county line to Athens and left a trail of such random destruction it looked like a drunk in a bar fight had struck the area.
I was not actually looking for Marvelene Wright when I found her. I was chasing down a tip about a treasured ring that had been lost in the storm and was miraculously found when I stopped at Marvelene’s house because there were people outside and I thought they might know the person I was looking for. I didn’t have a name, only a story. She told me she knew someone who fit the description but would we please come back and tell her story when we were done. I assured her reporter Leah Cayson and I would be back. Tuned out the person she sent us to was not the person I had heard about so I came back to Marvelene.
We arrived at the house as Marvelene was clearing out the last of the possessions she could salvage. She took one last walk through the home she had lived in for 50 years. This was the home where she raised her children, where her husband died and where countless memories of a lifetime had been made. She was walking through one last time before the house was torn down. Leah and I walked through the house that last time with her. That is such a privilege. We were able to share that most intimate of moments with her.
I am so amazed that people are willing to open windows into their lives and allow me to see inside, even for a few brief moments. That makes my job more than amazing. One more amazing thing to share from this story. The family owned company tearing down her house and building her new one is owned by the Chris and Terri Preston. Their home and the neighborhood they had constructed next door to their home in eastern Limestone County were all destroyed by the April 27, 2011 tornado and they made it their mission to get out and help as many as they could rebuild after this tornado. I really love that family. They are such wonderful people.
Covering tornadoes and their aftermath is such a humbling experience. I see people in the worst situations opening what is left of their lives and sharing with me and others and I never cease being amazed. I always wonder if that is how I would behave after losing everything I own?
Twenty Moments is an annual feature on the blog where I take you behind some of the photos I feel helped shape my year.
Yesterday you saw a flying tiger, today a pair of leaping tigers. Here is the situation. Hartselle is batting in the bottom of the last inning of the state championship game playing against Moody High. The Moody center fielder has just made one of those amazing diving catches and it makes you think Moody is destined to win. There are two outs and Hartselle has one runner on base and trail by one run. Hannah Jenkins is at at the plate and Moody’s pitcher has been dominant. Then the impossible happens.
Talk about moments you dream about! Jenkins swings and you can tell just by her reaction she has hit it well. I turn toward the outfielder and watch as the outfielder crashes through the fence but can’t make the catch. HOME RUN! WALK OFF HOME RUN to win the state championship, with two outs, in the bottom of the last inning! I turned back to the dugout to get the Hartselle reaction and I immediately see Sarah Ellen Battles and Madeline Sittason going nuts. This may be the moment of the purest joy I have ever photographed.
Do you remember from yesterday’s post how I said the shooting position on the field has poor sight lines? I was in that shooting position. You have to be at the end of the game because you have to have immediate access to the field. Post game reactions are usually over quickly and you don’t have time to fight through a crowd at the gate to get there and shoot. The shooting position almost ruined this photo! In the upper right corner of the frame you see the coach’s arm. The entire scene at home plate as Jenkins gets mobbed is blocked by the coach. The sight line from our shooting position on both sidelines runs right through the coaches boxes and there is nowhere on the field where we have a clean line of sight to home plate. That is frustrating and almost caused me to miss the shot.
I was shooting with a D4 at ISO 5000. Shutter speed was 1/1250 at f2.8 on a 3oo f2.8 lens. This photo has all kinds of flaws. I cut off one of the girls feet. The crop is a bit awkward. The image is a bit underexposed. The sky has gone to dusk but there is still a bunch of light in the sky causing some funky light conditions. Having said all that, none of it really matters. What matters is those faces and Madeline Sittason’s big leap in the foreground. I will take this photo every single day, flaws and all.
Twenty Moments is an annual feature on the blog where I take you behind some of the photos I feel helped shape my year.
I can’t tell you how many boring photos I have of governors visiting one place or another in north Alabama. God bless Jamie Martin. She is Governor Robert Bentley’s official photographer and I can’t imagine going around all the time and doing those photos. Most of the time when a governor visits us it is in some kind of ribbon cutting or new business announcement or something like that. Once in a while he comes to tour a tornado damaged area but even then it is a walk around kind of thing. When Governor Bentley came to present a proclamation to an elementary school teacher in Decatur I was not thrilled to get the assignment because I have been there and done that and thought I knew what to expect.
When the governor walked in the front door something totally unexpected happened. The kindergarten classes were doing a play and they invited the governor to come and be their ring master. He put on this top hat and I was practically dancing inside. Something cool was happening! That never happens during these official visits. The kids had him for maybe ten minutes, a lot longer than I would have expected him to give them, and he was very kind and asked the kids questions and really engaged them. I don’t know what kind of politician the governor is but he earned my vote that day because I could see what kind of man he is.
I made so many cool photos during that brief visit with the kindergarteners I had trouble picking just one. I finally narrowed it down to three and any of the three could have been with this post but this one has slowly emerged as a slight favorite so you see this one. I love the kids all looking at the governor as he puts on the top hat. Their faces are wonderful.
There is nothing magical about anything I did shooting this photo. The governor’s security detail didn’t mind me being where I needed to be to get the pictures and the only challenge was not getting in Jamie’s way so she could also get the photos. I am guessing it was a treat for her as well to have something to shoot other than a presentation. The photo was shot with a Nikon D4 and a 17-35mm f2.8 lens likely at or near the 17mm setting.
Twenty Moments is an annual feature on the blog where I take you behind some of the photographs that helped shape my year.
I suppose if a kid dreams of making a big catch in a big game then that kid would dream of making the catch Sarah Ellen Battles made during the State Championship Tournament in Montgomery this spring. Hartselle was playing Valley in one of the games leading up to their eventual state championship and Battles was playing in left field. I was in the process of tracking two or three teams on various fields and I had just walked over to Hartselle’s game after covering one of the other teams.
I decided to climb the bleachers and get a top row vantage point. The official shooting positions on the field are poorly placed and make it difficult to shoot anything plus, I just like doing different stuff. Shooting from the same position all the time gets boring and especially so during long tournaments. I climbed the bleachers and had not even been up there for a full inning when Battles made her big play.
A batter from Valley High School launched this long drive to left and Battles went back for it. She leaped into the air and caught the ball with her waist in contact with the temporary fence. Both she and the fence toppled over but she maintained control of the ball for the out. Hey, that is the stuff those childhood dreams are made of!
Now the cool thing for me is not just making the picture. That is awesome to have such a nice shot. The cool thing is my picture will be a part of her life for years to come. Who knows, maybe she will even show it to her kids someday. Bottom line, I was there and caught a big moment in a young ladies life and, as it happens, I also live in Hartselle so this is my team, in a manner of speaking. We do love our ball in Hartselle.
So the question for those of you who are maybe just getting into photojournalism is, “how do you know where to be to get THE shot?” Well, let me tell you, it is a highly scientific process of measuring the atmospheric pressure, wind speed, temperature, direction of the sunlight and, oh, who am I kidding? You listen to your gut. I call that a form of prayer because the Bible says the steps of the righteous are ordered by the Lord and since He lives inside me I reckon He can talk through my gut as well as through my ears.
There is also a few other factors that play into positioning. I do listen to my gut. I do pray. I also pay attention to the games and see how the pitcher is pitching. Do the batters tend to pull the ball to one side of the field? Are there a ton of strikeouts? Am I comfortable in my shooting position? Can I see the place where I feel something might take place? And, of course, am I bored with having shot this the same way a thousand times? Bottom line is you have to trust yourself and you have to be willing to take chances like climbing bleachers and shooting from unconventional spots. Baseball and softball are great games to try unconventional approaches on because the pacing is slower than say, basketball or football. Nail a shot you know your sports editor can use then have some fun.
Twenty Moments is an annual feature on the blog where I take you behind some of the photographs I feel helped define my year.
I am not especially fond of working holidays and not for the reason you may think. Far too often our photo editor comes out of the budget meeting before the holiday and says they want a page of pictures from whatever holiday is going on. None of those word editors have ever actually tried to do that, of course, but that is just about always the assignment. At least Easter provides some visual opportunities that other holidays maybe do not. That was literally the assignment and that was all the information I was given for the Easter holiday this year. The story was all visual, no reporter assigned, so all of it was up to me.
That is not a bad thing. My first thought was to call the Catholic Church in town because they do some awesome looking stuff on the special holy days. I did get a great shot from their Easter Vigil Saturday night before Easter that involved a fire at dusk and candlelight inside. It was beautiful and rivals this picture in my mind for the best shot. Sunrise services are very popular here and I tried to think of where a good sunrise service might be. I remembered driving past the No Fences Cowboy Church in Falkville and seeing some kind of notice about a sunrise service so I gave them a call and got permission to come and photograph the service.
I left home and saw I had a clear morning which is awesome. There is nothing quite as bad visually as a sunrise service when you can’t see a sunrise! Since it was a cowboy church I did expect to see a few cowboy hats and boots and stuff but I was totally surprised as I drove up and saw cowboys on horses with that sun rising. I fell all over myself running to shoot this photo. I got two or three angles with a couple of lenses before the scene changed but I knew I had my image by then. The rest of the images were just gravy.
The entire Easter beginning on Saturday evening with the Catholic Church, moving through sunrise with the Cowboy Church and finishing with a traditional service with one of our city’s oldest African American churches was a wonderful visual experience. I love shooting a story and having far too many good photos to get in print. That is the best kind of problem to have. This was a magnificent story for me and all my ideas worked far better than I had any reason to hope they would.
Let me leave you with one hint regarding photographing religious services. Don’t be obtrusive and get as many shots as you can that don’t involve the actual service. Church services can be fairly boring to photograph depending on the church and the event. Some people are also very sensitive about being photographed in church especially if it is an emotional time for them. Ministers can be very sensitive about photography during the service so make sure you have permission to shoot and have an understanding about where you can be during the service. Your best photos are not going to come from the preaching anyway so it is usually easy to assure the pastor you will be discrete.
Twenty Moments is an annual feature on the blog where I take you behind some of the photos I feel helped define my year.
I love shadows and I shoot shadows as often as possible. Shadows are fun. Photographers are always talking about light but shadows actually help define what the light is illuminating. Interesting concept isn’t it. Obviously, this photo did not find a place on our sports page. I shot this picture while covering the State Baseball Finals in Montgomery. The image did find its way into my photo gallery from the game and that makes me happy.
Baseball is a wonderful game and I have always loved playing baseball, watching baseball and shooting baseball games. Whenever I shoot anything I am always looking for things that are off beat, different or interesting. It is not that I think those photos are always going to run. Quite the contrary. I shoot pictures like that to help keep me sharp and tuned in and once in a while one does actually run. The point of doing a picture like this is not to get it published but to improve the way I see.
I went to The University of North Alabama in Florence and got my undergraduate degree in commercial photography with a minor in journalism. I never actually wanted to be a commercial photographer but they didn’t offer photojournalism. Michael K. “Nick” Nichols, yeah, that guy, went to UNA as well. By the time I was a student there he was already a campus legend having shot stories for GEO and he was soon to become a regular contributor to National Geographic. The story around campus was he always carried a small stuffed animal in his camera bag and he would set it up just about anywhere and work on his composition. I have no idea if it is true but it is a cool story.
I don’t carry around stuffed animals in my pack unless one of the kids jammed one in there without me knowing. Never the less, I use that same idea when I look for pictures like this shadow shot. One of Stephen Covey’s principles is “sharpen the saw.” This kind of picture keeps me sharp. I learned many years ago that, to stay successful in this business and not go completely crazy, I have to shoot to make myself happy. Usually if I am happy other people will also be happy. Just a hint here, don’t even bother attempting to make an editor happy. Be happy with your work and stay sharp and your editor will most likely be happy with you as well. Don’t let other people define your work. You define your work, and be happy.
By the way, I didn’t spend a ton of time shooting this. I fired off a couple of sequences and got this nice frame then went back to doing what I was really there to do. Shoot something cool and then get that nose back to the grindstone! But at least you will be happy while you grind.
This story on teen moms was supposed to be a really big deal and it started well. We had several teenage moms who talked to us in a special school program in Lawrence County and in Decatur but when it came time to go to their homes with a camera many of the families backed out. That is not terribly surprising because teen pregnancy is a very sensitive issue and getting people to open their lives to a camera can be difficult under ordinary circumstances. People will tell their story to a writer but the camera can be a point of intimidation. Eventually we found two teens, one pregnant and one with a new baby who did allow us into their homes.
Marileni Lopez is a beautiful young lady who has a new baby. Her name is Naomi. She and her family, (she still lives at home with her parents), allowed me in with the camera and I was able to spend about an hour with them. Obviously, that is not enough time to get a wide variety of photos. We stayed entirely in the family living room and the baby napped during at least half our visit. Even though I didn’t have as much variety as I would have liked I was grateful they allowed us in and I tried to maximize my time shooting from as many angles with as many lenses as I could.
This photo captivated me from the moment I saw it in the viewfinder. Marileni is holding Naomi and taking her to lay her down for a nap. The Disney movie playing on the the TV to the left makes it for me. The whole idea of the children’s movie about a princess with this lovely young teenage mom holding her new baby resonated for me and I knew the moment I shot the photo I wanted it to lead the package. I do love working metaphors into my photos and this is certainly an effective metaphor relating how the teenager, still a child in the eyes of adult society, is herself a mother and, looking at if from a father’s perspective, what little girl is not her daddy’s princess? This image conveys so much to me.
It is possible you missed the metaphor. Maybe you had a dad who didn’t treat you like a princess if you are a girl. Maybe you are a father who has a pregnant teenage daughter and you feel ashamed or embarrassed. Maybe things haven’t worked out in the relationship between a father and a daughter in your experience. There are many reasons why a photo doesn’t communicate the same thing to everyone. That is one of the beauties and one of the difficulties in visual communication. Writer’s face the same hurdles. They may allude to a work by Shakespeare, for instance, and the reader may have never read Shakespeare. No matter, the writer does not give up on metaphors in word and photographers don’t need to give up on metaphors in visual communication. Understand not everyone is going to get everything you try to do but don’t ever stop trying.
This image was shot with a Nikon D4 using a 17-35mm f2.8 lens and available light. The window light was very lovely in the room but the technical hurdle was a fairly high level of contrast to deal with. I felt like adding any strobe to the scene, even bounced, would have destroyed the feel of the light which was quite wonderful.
Twenty Moments is an annual series where I take you behind some of the photos that I feel helped shape my year.
Soccer was a very difficult sport for me to shoot when I first began covering soccer on a semi-regular basis. I never played the game growing up so I had no concept of the rules or why they did what they did. I would wait for the goal keeper to make a save then punt the ball toward midfield where I would hope I could capture someone heading the ball and that was about all I could come up with. Over time I did manage to learn some things about the game and even took a referee class when my kids started playing youth soccer. That cleared up the mystery of the off side call.
At least now when I go out to shoot a game I have some basic concept of where the ball is going and why it is going there. One stand by shot you can always look for is action involving the goal keeper. They do some acrobatic stuff defending the goal and, of course, the keeper can use his hands where no one else on the pitch can. (Notice the use of an actual soccer term!) I may not have covered more than two or three soccer matches all year and I believe the photo you see with this post is from the final game, a state playoff loss for Austin High School.
Austin goal keeper Jacob Gomez made several athletic saves during the game so I was keeping an eye on him. It was clear to me Austin was not the best team in the game and that usually means a busy keeper, especially at the high school level. This photo is pretty cool peak action as Gomez leaps over a Huntsville High player who was charging the goal and trying to head the ball into the net. Gomez flies over him and makes a save. I do wish the background in the photo was clean but there is nothing I could do about that. The edge of the visitors bleachers intrudes where it would have been nice to have nothing but blue sky but no photo is perfect so you take what you get and move on.
This photo, like most of my sports action, was shot with a Nikon D4 using a 300mm f2.8 with a 1.4 teleconverter. Why a teleconverter you ask? The 300 is our longest autofocus lens and 300 is usually not quite enough for field sports. Pop on the 1.4 converter and you jump out to a nice 420mm and only lose one stop moving from f2.8 to f4. I can use that combo even at night games on some high school fields and all the college venues and I do love the 400mm reach.